• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Real McCoy

Mr. Mayer advances his theory of a conspiracy to show that the Ocean Hill leaders were for the most part irresponsible troublemakers and their supporters on the State Board of Regents (especially Kenneth Clark who is, of course, a Negro), in the Mayor’s office, on the central Board of Education, and in the foundations and the universities were fools. In such circumstances one would expect the UFT to emerge heroically, but Mr. Mayer is willing to offer even Albert (“Al” as Mr. Mayer calls him) Shanker no more than the role of an innocent victim. The true hero of this narrative is Mr. Mayer himself. It is difficult for the reader to escape the impression that if Mr. Mayer, who describes himself as “among the leaders” of the movement to decentralize the schools, had only been called in at the beginning, the “earthquake” would never have happened.

But Mr. Mayer was not called in and it was left to Mayor Lindsay to cope with the Ocean Hill militants himself. That he fell into their trap is largely the result of his mistaken decision, according to Mr. Mayer, “that his office should have control of the Board of Education.” Where Lindsay went wrong, Mr. Mayer says, was in deciding to pack the Board with six new members who “were in one way or another intimately connected with poverty programs or with promoting social change.” “These men” (one of whom, Mr. Mayer fails to observe, was a woman) “were elected to nothing and responsible to no one,” which in itself, of course, doesn’t distinguish them from those Board members who had been appointed by Lindsay’s predecessor and to whom Mr. Mayer seems not to object, presumably because they were not interested in “social change.” But these six were in the “habit of dealing with issues, not with people…and they had no idea how a big organization runs or even what a big organization is…the six had no way to think about issues except in terms of slogans and personalities and the positions they had taken…”

What Mr. Mayer means by these categorical denunciations is obscure. He tells us almost nothing about the careers of four of these appointees, while one of the other two is John Doar, former chief of the civil rights section of the Justice Department, who, in his earlier career, must surely have dealt with “people” on many occasions, and perhaps even fell into the “habit” of dealing with them; nor can it be said that the Justice Department is not a big organization.

The point of these generalizations becomes clearer, however, when Mr. Mayer introduces the seventh Lindsay appointee, Mr. Walter Straley, a vice president of the telephone company who “had the background and training and position to see how profoundly harmful a third teachers’ strike would be,” though Mr. Mayer tells us no more of Mr. Straley’s “background and training” than he does of the backgrounds of the other Lindsay appointees or why a job with the telephone company makes one wiser than a job with the Justice Department. We are meant, however, to infer Mr. Straley’s superior wisdom from the fact that at a mysterious meeting at Armando’s Restaurant in Brooklyn on the night of October 13, as Shanker was about to call his third strike of the fall, Mr. Straley, “for five hours, from seven to midnight, hammered at his colleagues to get them to reverse the decision so hastily taken on Friday. He could not,” according to Mr. Mayer, “budge one of them.”

The decision which the Board had “hastily” taken, and to which Mr. Straley so strenuously objected, was to re-open Ocean Hill’s JHS 271. This school had been the scene of serious disturbances in the aftermath of the second UFT strike, and Superintendent Donovan had therefore decided to close it, a decision which seemed to many observers at the time to set the stage for more violence.

Mr. Mayer’s version of the events which led the Board to decide that 271 should be reopened, even if this meant a third teachers’ strike, is inadequate and thus fails to explain why Mr. Straley could not convince his colleagues. His account is based partly on conjecture and partly on what appear to have been interviews with several of the people involved in the negotiations between the Central Board and the UFT, including representatives of the Mayor’s office, the superintendent of schools, officials of the UFT, and various Board of Education members. The developments in Ocean Hill itself, however, are reported sketchily, scornfully, and at second hand, while the larger conflicts that had begun to arise, in the course of the fall, from the bitterness of the two previous strikes Mr. Mayer ignores entirely, perhaps on the assumption, as he later says, “that there were no real issues in the strikes—only slogans.”

In concentrating, as he does in the passages that describe the origins of the third and longest strike, on the inner machinery, together with the private conversations, secret meetings, and mysterious phone calls of the various negotiators, Mr. Mayer has neglected to observe what had been happening in the city itself. By the middle of October, on the eve of the third strike, a war was flickering between blacks and whites, and as long as the junior high school in Ocean Hill remained shut, that war threatened to break out on the streets. It was a skirmish on the edges of this war that led to the disturbances which caused Donovan to shut 271 in the first place.

The UFT teachers who had returned to Ocean Hill at the end of the second strike of the fall and the teachers, many of them white, who had remained on the job, had begun to squabble and occasionally to do worse than squabble, a detail which Mr. Mayer neglects to mention. It was partly because of this quarreling, and partly for reasons that go back to the governing board’s original decision last spring to get rid of those UFT teachers who had seemed to be sabotaging the district, that some of the Ocean Hill principals, as well as McCoy himself, found it difficult to comply quickly or easily with the terms on which the first two strikes of the 1968-69 school year were settled. These terms were mainly that the UFT teachers be returned to their regular classroom assignments.

John Doar, who had become President of the central Board of Education as the third strike emerged, was convinced that the only way to secure the necessary compliance was to rely upon the people in charge of the Ocean Hill schools themselves: to depend not upon the police who had been sent into the district but upon the local governing board, the unit administrator, and the principals whom they had appointed to meet the terms on which the central Board and the union had settled the second strike. In effect, it is this very arrangement—supervised rather gingerly by a representative of the State Department of Education—which has maintained the uneasy peace in Ocean Hill since the third strike was settled. It was also John Doar’s idea that if the situation in Ocean Hill were to be stabilized, 271 should be reopened. (According to Mr. Mayer’s improbable account of these events, Shanker himself is said to have agreed to this proposition. Mr. Mayer says that Shanker wanted 271 closed for only “one more day” beyond the date on which the Board had proposed to open it.)

Mr. Straley, for all his “background and training,” felt differently, but if he was unable to convince his colleagues in Armando’s Restaurant to go along with him, it was for reasons that had nothing to do with what Mr. Mayer presumes to be the simplemindedness of his fellow Lindsay appointees. What Mr. Straley had proposed to his colleagues a few days before the Armando’s meeting on October 13, but which Mr. Mayer leaves out of his account, was not simply that 271 remain closed but that the Ocean Hill project itself be abandoned, that its 9,000 children be sent away to other schools in the city, that the central Board of Education lease the buildings to the Ocean Hill governing board for one dollar a year and that the governing board look to foundations for the money with which to run them, for whatever children might still be left in the district. This scheme was enough to convince Mr. Straley’s colleagues that no matter how he might “hammer away at them,” his advice was to be regarded with the utmost caution.

But by this time the conflict between the Board of Education and the UFT, and within the Board itself between its pre-and post-Lindsay factions, had been far exceeded by a conflict within the school system as a whole—between white teachers and administrators, the majority of whom, alas, were Jewish, and their black and Puerto Rican clientele. The backlash within the UFT had become intense, though it was the same UFT which supports school integration and has given time, money, and spirit to the cause of civil rights (although, as John O’Neill, a former UFT Vice President, has pointed out, the Union employs only a handful of blacks and Puerto Ricans on its professional staff). What is worse, this backlash was rashly abetted by various Jewish leaders throughout the city who were fearful of what might happen if Jewish teachers were to find themselves employed not by the central bureaucracy but by “militant” black and Puerto Rican local governing boards. Though Mr. Mayer makes it appear that the third strike could have been avoided if only Lindsay’s new appointees had listened to Mr. Straley, the more likely hypothesis is that even Mr. Shanker could not control the fears of his union members, to which he and other leaders of the UFT had unwisely contributed, as the third and longest strike approached.

A long and bitter strike was inevitable. Its goal would be to destroy Ocean Hill, and with it any further hope of school decentralization, and it would wear itself out only when the teachers found at least the first of these goals unattainable and themselves exhausted, as the majority, but by no means all, of them eventually did. Having been so rash as to add to the furor of his followers, Shanker found that he, like the rest of the city, had become the victim of their passions.

Though Mr. Mayer says on one page of his book that there were no issues in the strike, he admits, on another, that there were. They were “the most difficult” of all strike issues to settle: the disposal of what Mr. Mayer rather coldly calls “surplus staff.” He is referring here to the teachers who had been hired by Ocean Hill to replace the ones who had gone out on strike. But he might as well have applied his statement to the school system at large, for at the source of the teachers’ strike and its proliferating antagonisms there is the hard question of what to do about ghetto teachers and principals for many of whom there may no longer be places in a changed educational structure, but who have worked and risen in the traditional system, who depend upon it for their livings and their self-esteem, and who in many cases have given their best efforts to a task which has, surprisingly, turned out to be among the most difficult on earth: teaching the young in a world which, in many ways, no longer makes sense either to them or to their elders.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print